Vivyan Adair, the Elihu Root Peace Fund Professor of Women's Studies, spoke at a Brown Bag Lunch sponsored by the Hamilton Action Volunteer Outreach Coalition (HAVOC) on the topic of Women in Service. Adair discussed her theories on the preponderance of women in volunteer, service, and altruistic roles, and what this means from a critical feminist theory standpoint. Students, faculty and staff also contributed their observations and analysis.
Adair said that while she has never before formally studied the prevalence of women in volunteerism, it's a phenomenon that she has not been able to avoid noticing here at Hamilton and in the larger world. While the fact that women participate more often in altruism and volunteer activity is not neccessarily a problem in and of itself, she said, but it is a very interesting phenomenon and is related to greater social notions of gender roles and work.
During America's early agricultural years, family members usually worked in small units inside the home. With the advent of industrialization and urbanization came increased class stratification and gender differences in regards to work, Adair said. A new class of educated, affluent, and supposedly idle women emerged in the cities, and then spread further around the country. The Civil War also established new models of volunteer work, with women serving as nurses and cooks for soldiers in the field. Women's service was, and continues to be to this day, often linked to religious groups and activities. In the 1960s and 70s, progessive political movements, including the women's movement, emphasized the importance of serving others as a means of personal fulfillment, and as a way of connecting the personal with the political.
The prevalence of women in volunteer work represents the replication of women's roles in the family into the society as a large, Adair argued. Women often volunteer by doing domestic tasks or organizational background work. Women in our society are raised with an idea that they should be there to serve and care for others, and that they are somehow more adept at this nurturing role than men are. In some ways, Adair said, "empathy and guilt are beat into women" at an early age through entrenched gender dynamics. Meanwhile, men are more often encouraged to take on the role of provider, and therefore spend more time doing work that will bring in money to their own family than work that will serve others. This pattern can be seen on college campuses, Adair argued, where women may be more focused on serving others and being involved, while men may be more focused on positioning themselves for a future career.
Adair then posed the question, is this phenomenon a problem? She said that it is when the different types of work that men and women do are valued differently by society. On the bright side, she pointed out, volunteer experience is becoming more and more of an asset in the professional world. However, there is still some cultural devaluation of unpaid volunteer work. This issue, Adair concluded, is tied in to many other issues of gender socialization and interaction.
Adair's talk was followed by comments and discussion from the audience, many of whom were women who are involved in volunteer activity on the Hamilton campus. Haley Reimbold '06, a coordinator of HAVOC, said that the group had raised this in the hopes of finding ways to get more men involved at Hamilton.
-- by Caroline O'Shea '07